World

Polls open as candidates vie to replace longest-serving Dutch leader

Geert Wilders is the leader of the Party for Freedom (AP)
Geert Wilders is the leader of the Party for Freedom (AP) Geert Wilders is the leader of the Party for Freedom (AP)

Dutch voters are casting their ballots in a general election which will see a replacement for Mark Rutte, the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister.

His successor after 13 years in office could be the country’s first female premier, or a social democrat who left his job as the European Union climate czar.

It could also be a far right anti-Islam legislator, or a centrist who created his his party only three months ago.

Polls showed four political parties, including the far-right Party for Freedom of firebrand Geert Wilders, are neck-and-neck going into Wednesday’s election. Forming the next government will require weeks or months of coalition talks between parties.

Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius
Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius could become the first female PM in Dutch history (AP)

A poll released on Tuesday put Mr Wilders’ party very narrowly ahead of Mr Rutte’s liberal, pro-free trade People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and a centre-left bloc made up of the Labour Party and Green Left.

If the ruling party manages to clip Mr Wilders’ wings, it would pave the way for justice and security minister Dilan Yeşilgoz-Zegerius to become the first woman to occupy the prime minister’s office, known as the Little Tower.

Ms Yeşilgoz-Zegerius was elected leader of the VVD after Mr Rutte resigned.

Born in Turkey, she is a former refugee who now advocates a crackdown on migration as the Netherlands struggles to accommodate asylum seekers.

Veteran politician Mr Wilders, whose poll numbers have risen steadily during the campaign, goes much further, calling for what he calls an “asylum stop” and pushbacks of migrants at Dutch borders. He also wants to organise a referendum on quitting the European Union.

In a final debate on Tuesday night, he sought to play down his anti-Islam rhetoric, saying he wanted to be “a premier for all Netherlanders, regardless of their religion or background”.

Thierry Baudet
Thierry Baudet Thierry Baudet, leader of right-wing populist party Forum for Democracy, was hurt by a hurled bottle (AP)

Two days before the vote, another far-right candidate, Forum for Democracy leader Thierry Baudet, was injured when a man hit him on the head with a beer bottle during a campaign event in the northern city of Groningen. He was back campaigning on Tuesday.

Once Wednesday’s votes have been counted, party leaders will have to negotiate the make-up of the next governing coalition. After the 2021 election, it took more than nine months for them to put together a four-party arrangement that was the same as the previous government’s.

Mr Rutte’s fourth and final coalition resigned in July after failing to agree on measures to rein in migration.

The issue was one of the dominant themes of the campaign along with how to restore trust in the central government that was eroded by a series of scandals that tarnished Mr Rutte’s time in office.

The leader of the movement to reform government is Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch legislator who set up the New Social Contract party over the summer. The party shot up in opinion polls ahead of the election.

The former Christian Democrat has long campaigned for more transparency in government and better protection for whistleblowers.

Netherlands Elections
Netherlands Elections Pieter Omtzigt is leader of the recently formed Dutch political party New Social Contract (AP)

He also has worked on behalf of victims of scandals, ranging from child benefit recipients who were wrongly labelled fraudsters by tax inspectors to people in the northern Groningen province whose houses were damaged by earthquakes caused by gas extraction.

The heavyweight on the political left is former EU climate commissioner Frans Timmermans, who left his international career to return to his socialist roots and head the Labour Party-Green Left bloc.

Even if his bloc wins the most seats, he could have trouble building a left-of-centre coalition in the politically splintered Netherlands.

The outcome after polls opened on Wednesday morning is hard to predict, given what happened in other European elections in recent months.

Populist and hard-right parties triumphed in some EU member nations and faltered in others, creating conflicting messages on where democracy on the continent is heading.

Frans Timmermans
Frans Timmermans Frans Timmermans has come back from an international career to lead the left-leaning Labour-Green bloc (AP)

Spain set the scene in July, when it looked like the far right together with the conservative Christian Democrats might dislodge Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who has led the country since 2018.

Somehow, the incumbent hung on, though it required political acrobatics and a risky alliance with Catalan nationalists.

In September, populist Robert Fico’s Smer party won the parliamentary election in Slovakia after campaigning on a pro-Russia and anti-American platform. Mr Fico, returning to power for a fourth time, set up a coalition government that now includes an ultra-nationalist party.

Then the next month, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party extended its reach from its dominant base in the country’s formerly communist east by making a strong showing in two state elections in the west.

Recent national polls have put the party in second place nationwide with support of around 20%, about double its popularity during the 2021 federal election.

By the time Poland votes later in October, the question of whether the country would continue veering away from democratic rule of law principles under the Law and Justice party attracted international interest.

The extreme-conservative party received the most votes but not a majority in parliament, ultimately losing control of the Polish government to a coalition led by the moderate and pro-EU veteran Donald Tusk.